Perfect English? That’s the way you heard it spoken when you were growing up. For those of us lucky enough to live here in the center of the universe, that pretty much means the Scandihoovian-tinged or Deutsch-inflected accents of Minnesota and North Dakota.
Thus the message was plenty clear last week when the owner of Orange Julius, a West Acres fast-food outlet, specified whom he wanted to hire: “We ask that you only apply if you are U.S.-born and speak English as your primary language.”
That little slip is against the law, which forbids hiring based on national origin. The embattled Fargo businessman quickly saw the light, especially when reminded he could face a hefty fine. He assured WDAY he had not intended to “hurt anybody;” he just wanted to “make sure his employees could communicate easily.” (The shopping center, which recognizes that cash is the universal language, promptly issued its own apology.)
An innocent mistake? Maybe … but let’s dig a little deeper. First, you needn’t be born in the U.S. to speak English as your first language. The rest of the English-speaking world comes to mind.
Nor does being born within our borders mean you’re going to sound a lot like we do. Didn’t the movie “Fargo” make that clear enough? Please be advised that the rest of America already thinks we talk kinda funny up in this neck of the woods, doncha know then?
Ah, well. What we’re really talking about, I think, isn’t where a potential orange juicer is born, but how he or she sounds taking orders behind the counter. It’s all about the ears. We’re scared to death to venture beyond the Upper Midwestern accent.
Let’s be honest here. We’re still not used to people who don’t sound local. That’s hardly surprising. In days gone by, the most exotic foreign accents we ran into were by Canadians who said “aboot” and “eh.”
That has changed dramatically in recent years, and it does make us squirm a bit. More and more international experts have been hired to teach in our universities and heal in our hospitals, or build new lives through global resettlement. Still, it’s a good bet that only a scant few rural Dakotans and Minnesotans interact regularly with someone who sounds vastly different. I’m not just talking about Somalian or Malaysian accents, either — how about the patter of the Deep South or the Bronx?
Personally, I avoid both British dramas (sorry, PBS!) and domestic rappers. They just rattle it off faster than my languid country listening can keep up with.
I’m not used to having to concentrate. My ears are lazy. Yours, too?
Big-box bargain-seekers are complaining lately about the rainbow of employees who now staff checkout lanes. Their most frequent gripe is that the cashiers “can’t speak English.” Wrong! They do speak English, sometimes very well … but we haven’t gotten used to the small burst of extra effort it may take to decode them, compared with how the folks next door talk.
Wrapped in our home-grown cultural cocoon, we seldom give a thought to who, really, owns this problem. It couldn’t possibly be “us”, could it — we who’ve lazed along in the rhythms of the Upper Midwest from the time we crawled out of our cradles. So, for sure, it must be “them”! They’ve got to be the problem …
… even when they’re addressing us in what is, in fact, newly learned English.
We take for granted that newcomers will not only master the nouns, verbs and idioms we’ve accumulated over our lifetime but to pronounce them however we do.
When you learn a language, your accent is often the last to be lost. Our own grandparents and great-grandparents would be happy to set us straight, were they still around to explain. People stared at them with the same bafflement back in the 1800s, when they washed over the Upper Midwest in a northern European tidal wave. The “old Americans” — who’d founded these cities — mostly considered them second-class and mocked their dress, habits and thick accents.
Like the Hispanics and Asians who’ve joined us over the past 40 years, and the Kurds, Somalis, Nepalese and more who’ve come more lately, they’ve landed in a culture that doesn’t make much effort to understand. Our current malady could be called Lazy Listener Syndrome: Being forced to actually concentrate on what someone is saying, instead of absorbing it, easy as oxygen, without a second thought.
One of my grandmothers was born to a Norwegian family that settled near Hillsboro, N.D., almost 150 years ago. She read and wrote Norwegian even before her schoolteachers taught her English. The man she’d marry emigrated from near the Arctic Circle, embarked from the cattle boat that brought him (according to family lore), then walked from Ontario to Traill County, where he apprenticed to a blacksmith.
Different time, different place — but the same situation. Picture my bright, eager grandma in primary school, already reading two languages but scolded by her teacher and teased by classmates for her Norwegian brogue. Imagine Grandpa, who’d arrived alone at 14, standing for long, long hours at his forge — chatting easily with Norwegian farmers but never quite fitting in among the city fathers. Can you imagine them wincing at “dumb Norwegian” jokes — amusing now, not quite so much when aimed straight at you.
Grandpa and Grandma’s speech never quite blended with the unblemished Midwestern norm. And so, from the moment their children started school, they never spoke Norwegian in front of them again … except, of course, for content best reserved for adult ears.
My mother — who grew up knowing little more than a few Norwegian swear words — often reminisced, “Ma and Pa wanted their children to be American.” Somehow, I always pictured that in terms of the Stars and Stripes, Sousa marches and crisp salutes on the Fourth of July. It’s taken a good long time to grasp the deeper, more desperate longing embedded in that patriotic dream: To speak without self-consciousness. To talk freely in mixed groups. To be taken for granted as part of “us,” not “them” — no more than that, and no less.
Once, my own family craved the same thing these newcomers long for today — to be able to speak freely, to be understood and to fit in. No matter how much they may love the culture they’ve come from, they want to meld in here and now. They want an ordinary day, an ordinary job, an ordinary classroom, an ordinary trip to the grocery store — the luxury of not standing out.
Some may even aspire to serve up Orange Julius.
We can awaken our own lazy ears … if we’re willing. It can take a little extra effort to decode distinctive accents and rhythms. We may have to ask “what?” more than we think polite. We may have to rattle off our comments a few beats slower and concentrate a little harder.
In the end, though, what counts isn’t accent. It’s attitude. The New Americans among us — international students or refugees, skilled professionals or newly arrived relatives, or simply hard-working families scaling the same mountains our own forebears once had to climb — are already giving their all to conquer our weird, wonderful patchwork American English, along with our sometimes-baffling American ways.
They’re throwing everything they’ve got into talking to us. Why not stretch just a little bit more … and catch it?